By Jake Donovan
There was a point in his career when Gavin Rees was done with boxing. By his own admission, he had already grown discouraged with the sport, failing to secure any meaningful fights at his natural fighting weight of 135 lb. before opting to chase a title one division north.
His July 2007 title win over Souleyman M’Baye went a long way towards satisfying one goal in his career. But it still wasn’t enough to make boxing his everything.
“I won the title and then lost it. I liked the party life. I didn’t like boxing at the time and didn’t train,” Rees (37-1-1, 18KO) recalls of his brief stay as champ before losing the belt to Andriy Kotelnik in March ‘08.
The title loss was reason enough to make a clean break from the sport. Not much was expected of his career, which meant he already surpassed the expectations of most observers.
It was during a year-plus break from the sport when it was realized: he really is a fighter. Like most fighters, the retirement didn’t stick. Rees returned to the ring in August ’09, and just kept winning – or least managed to never again lose.
An 11-fight unbeaten streak – including top honors in the Dec. ’09 Prizefighter tournament – has led to the biggest opportunity of his near 15-year career. Rees makes his stateside debut, arriving to Atlantic City as a massive underdog for his lightweight title challenge against unbeaten Adrien Broner (Saturday, HBO, 10:30PM ET).
His current status as a Top 10 contender is still a far cry from his brief stay as a super lightweight titlist. His reign took place at a time when the Wales boxing scene reached its pinnacle. Joe Calzaghe was ruling the roost at super middleweight and on his way to conquering the light heavyweight division, while Enzo Macarrinelli was a top-rated cruiserweight titlist.
The comeback journey hasn’t quite included the same company. Calzaghe is long retired, nor is Enzo Calzaghe – Joe’s father – still in Rees’ corner. Macarrinelli has fallen far from grace, having also retired and returning, though well past this prime and most likely never again reaching contender status.
There is a train of thought that Rees’ American conquest will end disastrous, that he heads home with a nice chunk of change and a second career loss while pondering whether or not to continue as he creeps towards 33 years of age.
Broner is a 50-1 favorite on several sportsbooks, making Rees a massive longshot in a gambling town. The Welsh boxer is still brimming with confidence, though; refusing to fall prey to his opponent’s antics while steadily insisting he’s here not to cash in but to win.
If it were about the money, he’d have demanded a king’s ransom before agreeing to the fight.
“I’m a real fighter, I’ll fight anybody,” Rees insists. “When the fight was offered and they asked to discuss the money, I said ‘Don’t worry about me. Get the fight.’ The fight comes first, the money is second to me. It’s a massive fight and a massive opportunity for me, so I’m looking forward to it.”
Much like his title win more than five years ago, this particular fight landing in his lap was once again about being in the right place at the right time. The intended opponent for Broner was actually Scotland’s Ricky Burns. Had the fight been made, a true divisional champion would have been crowned, as both fighters are the top two rated lightweights according to Boxingscene.com and Transnational Boxing Ratings.
Burns decided to go in a different direction, gearing up for next month’s alphabet unification match with Miguel Vazquez.
The timing was perfect for Rees, who had just watched a high profile showdown with John Murray fall by the wayside. Murray failed a pre-fight physical, thus canceling their scheduled December 8 lightweight encounter.
Rees remained in the gym, hopeful for something to turn up in its place. Then came the call of a lifetime.
“The fight got called off just before Christmas,” Rees remembers. “This fight (was) confirmed and we’re in great shape and looking forward to the fight. I think Adrien is a great fighter, so we’ll both bring our A games to the table and it should be a great fight.”
A great fight would be a hell of a lot more than most people expect to take place. A great showcase for Broner, perhaps. A competitive fight, though; it will be up to Rees to once again disprove the odds.
That he’s even at this point at all helps provide a glimmer of hope. The renewed dedication to the sport is apparent in his current unbeaten streak. The lone blemish was a four-round technical draw with Derry Matthews, when a clash of heads left the Liverpool lightweight with a busted nose. Because the bout hadn’t reached four full rounds, the scorecards – all three on which Rees led 29-28 to that point – proved moot and the bout was declared a draw.
Rees gained revenge less than a year later, stopping Matthews in nine rounds last July for his most recent win. The seven-month gap between fights certainly doesn’t help, not when it’s factored into the other lingering disadvantages – a 10-year gap in age and his traveling across the pond for his first fight on American soil.
According to the visiting challenger, it simply comes with the territory.
“No challenges (to overcome),” Rees firmly believes. “I’m a better fighter than I’ve been in last two performances. My best was where I went to Paris, went over there and beat the European Champion (Anthony Mezaache, whom Rees stopped in seven rounds).
“And back at home in my early career everyone knows I didn’t live the life of a true fighter, partying a lot and didn’t live the lifestyle and I’ve turned it round now before it’s too late.”
His career turnaround comes at a time when it is believed that the best years still await Broner. The confident 23-year old is riding high off of a career-best performance, a one-sided 8th round knockout of Antonio DeMarco last November in this very same venue to win the title.
DeMarco was regarded as the top lightweight in the world but was made to look like a sparring partner in their HBO-televised main event. The fight is viewed by Rees as lesson learned that it’s not about rankings or status, but the adjustments you make once you enter the ring.
“DeMarco came straight in. (Broner) fought a great fight and put on a great display,” Rees observed. “DeMarco gave him no head movement. I won’t be doing anything like that. We see a lot of weaknesses and are going to take him to task.”
With all of that knowledge, why is he viewed as a 20-1 underdog? And how in the world does he plan to upset the odds?
“You’ll just have to wait and see on the 16th of February,” Rees teases. “I will put my name on the map.”
Jake Donovan is the Boxingscene.com Managing Editor, Records Keeper for Transnational Boxing Ratings Board and a voting member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. Twitter: @JakeNDaBox